Amorphous /əˈmôrfəs/ (adj):
1. having no definite or clear shape or form.
2. An alternative business model that kicks ass
There is no doubt that structure is a good thing. Without clearly defined boundaries, a creative process tends to wander and flounder and never go anywhere. But in order to truly accomplish any great work, freedom and space for the creative process is also incredibly important - it’s a delicate balance that can easily get thrown off and lead to good (or really bad), but not great, design work. Similarly I’ve found that, in order to be successful, our business needs to operate with a certain amount of creative freedom. So sit back as I explain how and why we now, and probably always will, consider our core management structure to be what I call the Amorphous Agency Model.
The Traditional Corporate Business Model
Before getting into the specifics of what our agency model is and why we use it, I’d like to take a moment and quickly explain how most corporations layer their organization. Typically, at the top of the food chain, there is the C-Suite (CEO, CFO, COO, etc) or other top level management team. From there, it’s a cascade effect of top-down management - where the top level manages the overall direction and health of the business and middle management layers direct the layer beneath them. So the CFO manages the entire company’s finances, but then the VP of finance manages a team mid-level managers who manage teams of specialized managers who manage teams of individuals that do the actual day-to-day labor. CFO>VP>General Manager>Team Manager>Team Member. It’s dizzying, and it leads to broad separation between the highest and lowest levels of the organization. Communication becomes bloated by having to pass messages between levels. Not only that, but this model also encourages a culture that identifies the members of an organization only by their specific job functions. Even within advertising agencies, this specialization can make it difficult for ideas to flow freely from one department to the next. For the most part, this model is widely used and is accepted as the typical way of running a business - large or small.
The Flat Organization
In many cases, when a business is small enough, there are often blurred lines between management and product/service production and delivery. As an example, restaurants are often (but not always) owned by the head chef of the establishment. In this case the owner must work with his/her management team to command the direction and health of the business, as well as work with the kitchen crew to produce and deliver food to their customers. In contrast, a restaurant owned by a restaurant group would follow a more layered management structure: Restaurant Group>Restaurant>General Manager>Head Chef>Sous Chef>Line Cook. I had, at one point, assumed that these types of small businesses were the only ones that benefit from such a structure - where management and production were closer together, allowing the management team to have a finger on the pulse of the day-to-day tasks and to be more agile in higher level decision making. However, even certain large businesses operate with a flat business model. In flat organizations there are generally self-managing teams - meaning that rather than a having a top-down management structure, each team governs itself through taks being delineated via consensus, potentially requiring approval by management to move forward with certain decisions.
In this model, there are still two levels: management and product/service production and delivery - but even still, without the middle management layer, the organization can adapt with much more agility to industry change and respond to financial or production challenges. However, it is not only important to Suits & Sandals to have a model that allows for more agility and faster communication. Even more important is the quality of the people that make up the agency - because after all, that’s what an agency is: a collection of humans with particular skills, coming together and creating and executing amazing ideas.
All people are T-shaped. And no, not just because we can stretch our arms out and look like the letter T, though it is quite a good diagram. The term T-shaped refers to having quite a few skills and interests, with very honed expertise in just a few specific areas. So a T-shaped individual may be pretty good at recording music, speaking a second language, photography, and holding their liquor, but their ninja-level skills are in the field of graphic design: the Adobe suite, color theory, etc. There is a clear, broad range of useful skills that can be applied to brainstorming and sketching for great ideas, and then when it comes to the execution of those ideas, they can attack it with precision and come out with a great product.
For us, being T-shaped is just part of our company culture. When you’re in charge of submitting proposals, billing clients, creative direction and design execution, it’s kind of a requirement to be pretty good at almost everything, and really good at one specific thing. That’s primarily why Suits & Sandals was able to work so well for such a long time with just three people making up the entire company: we had one person with deep knowledge in each category of Marketing, Design and Development, but all three of us were also fairly well versed in the other two expertises. I, as the Marketing Director, started out also being deep in the code and even some of the graphic design. Miles, the Creative Director, helped with social media and did a large portion of the coding, as well as being a core component to the sales process. Zack helped with organizing the business and improving workflow efficiency, along with his general ninja coding awesomeness.
Why We Use This Business Model
To explain how we got here, I’ll briefly have to go all the way back to the start of Suits & Sandals. The short version: Miles and I started working together on some freelance web design work, quickly realizing that we should form a company, hiring Zack about 6 months later, solidifying an equal partnership soon after that. That last bit is the important part - the partners each have equal share in the business. The founding members (Miles and myself) do not retain more ownership percentage.
Since then, we’ve branched out from just doing web design to offering more comprehensive digital marketing and advertising services. We’ve also brought on more people - T-shaped people that are really great at one or two specific fields, but ones that can adapt and contribute to a broader picture view of a client’s digital landscape. This is incredibly important for us because, as a business that prefers to remain small, we need people that enjoy critical thinking and can wrap their minds around a platform-based approach to digital strategy - coming up with great ideas to bring to the table for the strategy of a campaign, and then putting their expertise (say maybe graphic design or SEO) to work in the execution of a web product or content production.
As we continue to grow, we’re making sure that having multiple roles within the business, things that the individual actually enjoys doing, and enough freedom and power to participate in high-level conversations about client accounts is something each person in our organization has at all times. We feel that this builds a social capital that you just don’t find in many other agencies, and leads to better creative, a more productive environment, and much higher morale. You should love your job - and when the people we work with love their jobs, it shows in the end product: our clients’ digital marketing - which, in turn, generally establishes a stronger b2c relationship for our clients...and what client doesn’t love that?
To keep this already rather long post a bit more brief than originally planned, I’ll be releasing a second post in the near future that discusses other forms of flat business models that pretty well known (and often very large) companies use. Additionally, I’ll talk about how you can plan for future growth in a business with an Amorphous Agency Model. Stay tuned!